Thursday, April 11, 2024
Leadership Lessons from Dr. Jeff Karp, Author & Biomedical Innovator

Just before the start of 2024, the IBM Center released its latest book, Transforming the Business of Government: Insights on Resiliency, Innovation, and Performance, to mark its 25th anniversary. We recognize that government leaders continue to face the unforgiving realities of disruption and uncertainty. They need, now more than ever, practical, actionable insights on how best to manage and lead through uncertain and disruptive periods. This why my co-editor Dan Chenok and I pulled together a compilation of essays that diagnosis challenges, uncover opportunities, and outline recommendations, to help government executives be more resilient, innovative, and continually focused on mission and performance. 

I also want to find complementary tools and tactics that can help government leaders apply the insights from our book. To that end, I am dedicating a series of episodes of The Business of Government Hour exploring the qualities, strategies, tactics, and mindset leaders from all sectors may need to navigate unsettling times and transform order out of chaos. The authors and thinkers who join me will offer their advice and lessons learned that can be useful in all sectors including the public sector. 

Recently, I welcomed Dr. Jeff Karp, author of LIT: Use Nature’s Playbook to Energize Your Brain, Spark Ideas, and Ignite Action, as my guest on The Business of Government Hour. Dr. Karp has a truly impressive career path. He is a biomedical engineering professor at Harvard Medical School and MIT, a Distinguished Chair at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. He leads KarpLab with the mission of creating advanced biomaterials and devices for therapeutics through a highly multidisciplinary approach. According to Jeff, the lab has developed innovative medical solutions including a surgical glue inspired by slugs and sandcastle worms. It has used what he calls the same nature-forward creative process to develop a diagnostic for cancer based on the tentacles of jellyfish; surgical staples based on the quills of porcupine; and a tiny needle bed with swellable tips for diagnostic sampling of tissue fluid based on the snout of a spiny-headed worm. He has accomplished this and more by developing and applying what he calls “life ignition tools.”

As a child, Jeff was trapped in his own world and had trouble learning. He credits a graded schoolteacher who showed him the patience of a true mentor and posed to him not just questions but the single most important question that transformed Jeff forever. That question was: “How did you think about that?” Upon hearing that question Jeff realized that he could think about how he thinks and that is the purpose of LIT. It’s takes us off autopilot, so we can learn, connect, adapt, and draw energy from our experiences. It teaches us to use our intention to direct our attention to what is most meaningful for us to be fully engaged and attuned -- rewiring our brains and connecting us with the "why" behind our "what".  

The following is an edited excerpt of our conversation that highlight of key insights and topics from discussed and his new book:

On Life Ignition Tools. When I first started thinking about writing LIT, I wondered if I was alone in my experience. Would my focus on process and the tools to ignite innovation translate universally to other people? As a scientist, engineer, and inventor, after seeing how these coping tools that I Absolutely. So lit is a a simple set of holistic tools. There are 12 tools. Each chapter of the book is organized as a tool. These tools are designed to help us to bring a heightened state of awareness to any situation. They are designed to aid us to tap into what's already within us. We have this incredible prefrontal cortex in our brain. It gives us this incredible ability to think, plan, and actively rewire our brains so we can develop habits and patterns that serve us well. Life Ignition Tools are designed to help us engage that process.

Editor’s Note - the following introduces the tools that compose LIT:

  • Flip the switch -- intercept routine patterns and make simple, deliberate changes
  • Live for the questions -- tap into the vitality of inquiring by swapping caution for curiosity and always dig deeper  
  • Get bothered -- wake up to what you want by identifying the “Why?” that motivates you
  • Be an active opportunist – train your brain to seek diverse experiences and seize opportunities 
  • Pinch your brain -- use your attention as a superpower by interrupting mind drift and the pull of distractions with intentional tugs.
  • Get hooked on movement -- take any small step—in anything—to activate fresh energy
  • Practice, practice, practice -- enjoy the rewards of repetition and the joy of incremental improvements.
  • Do new, do different -- invite surprise, serendipity, and generate new possibilities.
  • Focus beyond failure -- use the emotional charge of failure to fine-tune where you channel your purposeful efforts
  • Be human, be humble -- let awe be your access point for inspiration and your capacity for greater good.
  • Press “Pause” -- prioritize time to recharge your spirit.
  • Revitalize your roots -- connect with life’s powerful resources 

To achieve LIT, we can use these tools to energize our bodies and brains, tap into motivation, process experiences, break through hesitation and fear to engage in new experiences, connect more deeply with ourselves, others, and the natural world, and embrace failure as a step toward success. For example, by employing LIT tools such as ‘Press Pause,’ ‘Pinch Your Brain,’ and ‘Flip the Switch,’ we can intentionally take a break to sit with our experiences. We can focus our attention to recognize what’s holding us back and draw energy from it. Through using these tools, we can tune into the inner desire for possibility, take stock of what is working and what is holding us back, recognize other possibilities or other ways of thinking, and take a deliberate step forward.  

On Flipping the Switch and Thinking about Thinking.  I started to think about my thinking. I started to think about what other people might be thinking: what's behind what others are saying. I noticed patterns and behaviors -- patterns in my thought processes and how patterns of my actions relate to my thought processes. For example, I started to recognize that when I ask questions suddenly, I was able to hyper focus for a few moments afterwards and listen very intently and anything that was said in those moments would imprint in my mind. I discovered that asking questions was a necessity for me to be able to learn. I found if I didn't ask questions, especially in a conversation, I just would get lost. I found questions slowed conversations down so I could catch up. Questions are one of the most powerful technologies available to us. When we ask questions, it can help us connect to other people, when we listen, we deepen those connections. We have done this at Karplab and it's been a true cornerstone in our success. Thinking about thinking can help us expand our minds allowing us to consider other possibilities. It helps us understand what’s working and what's holding us back. My interview with Joyce Roche illustrates flip the switch perfectly. She was an executive suffering from severe self-doubt that kept her from progressing in her career. She recognized this reality but also understand there was another way to think about this situation. She noticed that inner desire of possibility, shift her perspective, and took a deliberate step forward. 

On Pinching Your Attention to Focus with Intention. I first experienced the “pinch” of attention when I encountered a literal bat walking down the driveway in my rural farm home in Canada. I noticed something as I walked down the driveway as it became clearer what it was, I couldn’t stop focusing my attention on it.  It was like a pinch—it grabbed my attention and squeezed out the other thoughts.  Not only that, it felt different from the way distractions usually did. Instead of adding to the chaos in my mind, that kind of pinch made me feel focused and mentally calm but energized at the same time. Over the years, I began to wonder: Is something going on here that I can turn into a strategy to help me pay attention. I started to experiment with ways to use the pinch intentionally—pinch my attention to feel calm, alert, and focused on what I chose to be focused on. 

For the human brain isn’t simply wired to wander; it’s also wired to wonder. When something or someone piques our interest it registers in the brain as a novelty and triggers a cascade of neurochemical responses. The continual interplay of the brain’s response to novelty and to focused attention, to wander and wonder, keeps the energy charged for the effort. The pinch engages and holds your attention, enabling you to focus more deliberately on whatever you choose.  In my book, I explain the biochemical dynamics to further illustrate the science behind the pinch. 

 To illustrate it further, we use the pinch at KarpLab. When we look at new problems, it’s important to try to come up with new solutions and resist the mind’s gravitational pull to consider existing technologies or solutions, which often leads to suboptimal results. We review the existing technologies in our toolbox when we start. We’re also cautious because there’s a natural momentum, a gravitational pull, to just go with what you know—trying to adapt existing technologies, only to encounter new complexities and eventually realize that you needed different thinking and different solutions from the beginning. We work intentionally to avoid the path of least resistance. We use strategic questions to pinch our attention.

On the Importance of Practice. Practice is a process that is, for any of us, both deceptively simple and layered with subtlety, surprises, and astonishing reveals. There is more to it than meets the eye. Practice helps us learn or master a skill, but beyond that, it has an effervescent effect. In the brain, as the repetition and challenge stimulates neuroplasticity, it creates new and deepening neural pathways that intertwine and energize networked connections that affect our mood, cognition, memory, motivation, and attentional focus.

Practice creates a paradigm for growth and fulfillment in every realm—work, study, athletics, relationships, meditation, spirituality. Even household tasks can cease to be “chores” when you see them as a practice and appreciate their process. It’s gratifying to overcome the brain’s natural resistance to exertion, both physical and mental, and achieve something that is important to us.

In my book, I tell the story of Nelson Dellis, a memory champion, who as a child showed no precocious feats of memory that stamped him for future brilliance. Practice did it. The habits that he developed around practice proved to be the transferable skill—the keen focus that ultimately saved his life on an ill-fated climb up Mount Everest in 2021. Although each ascent stopped short for different reasons, each time the decision required having his wits about him to make a wise choice in the worst conditions. His memory practice and skills “saved me up there,” he said. Specifically, the lit factor of memory practice kept his mind actively engaged, helping him make the decision with clarity in the face of extreme danger.


Listen to the entire podcast interview at

Learn more about LIT: